FIFA and Human Rights: Lessons From the Ruggie Report

Thousands dead in Qatar. Families displaced. Shady contracts. Can FIFA improve its human rights records? John Ruggie, a professor of human rights at Harvard, published a report that could help fundamentally change the organisation. Will FIFA follow it?

by Brian Blickenstaff
15 April 2016, 5:55am

Photo by EPA

In June of 2014, former United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights Mary Robinson, and John Ruggie, a professor of human rights and international affairs at Harvard, sent a letter to FIFA. The pair were concerned by FIFA's quagmire in Qatar, where thousands of mostly South Asian guest labourers were dying at building sites for the 2022 World Cup. Robinson and Ruggie wanted to help.

In August 2015, more than a year after sending the letter, Ruggie received a phone call. Would he be willing to come to Zurich to speak with FIFA President Sepp Blatter? the caller asked. Mr. Blatter needs help in the area of human rights.

"It sort of came out of the blue," Ruggie told VICE Sports. He was on a plane to Switzerland the next day.

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In Zurich, Blatter asked Ruggie if he would advise FIFA on how the organisation could improve its human rights record. Ruggie said that he would, so long as he be allowed to publish his recommendations publicly. Those recommendations were published on Wednesday in a report titled "For the Game, For the World" FIFA and Human Rights. The report contains 25 proposals that, if implemented, would help change FIFA from an organisation that seems to have an almost aggressive disregard for how its policy choices affect people around the world into one that is more in line with how FIFA wants to be seen: considerate of its place as a leader in sports and conscious of how its actions reverberate through the lives of people the world over.

Prior to moving to Harvard, Ruggie worked at the United Nations, where he authored something called the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which became the template for his FIFA work. In short, the Guiding Principles, which are now policy at the UN, serve to ensure that the organisation doesn't make business or policy decisions that negatively impact the human rights of people with whom the UN does business. It's the kind of document that sounds unnecessary: of course the UN considers human rights in its decision making. The reality is not quite as simple. It takes more than a desire to do the right thing; one must have a plan.

Huge organisations like the UN, or FIFA, deal with immense and complicated supply chains – subcontractor after subcontractor ad infinitum. How do you make sure the organisations down the supply chain behave in a way that's in line with your ethics? Because here's the thing: not all of them share the same values. And if you need an example of how an international organisation that doesn't have any policies in place can screw this kind of thing up – and how people might die as a result – well, just look at FIFA.

Ruggie's 25 recommendations to FIFA read as surprisingly straightforward and in many cases seem like common sense ("FIFA should ensure that the individuals with a significant role in implementing its human rights commitment have adequate training, capacity and resources to perform their roles"). But taken together, the recommendations speak to just how far behind FIFA is. FIFA loves to talk about its global reach and capacity for creating positive change, but it appears to have never given much thought to how it can make sure it does no harm. "The scope and reach of their football empire far exceeded the internal controls and governance structure," Ruggie said.

Ruggie's recommendations encourage FIFA to first and foremost "adopt a clear and coherent Human Rights policy," before offering a number of ways in which FIFA can create an organisational structure that anticipates risk and monitors projects. Because the recommendations are meant as guidelines, however, the report doesn't deal in specifics or give concrete examples for, say, how to fix FIFA's mess in Qatar.

Ruggie's recommendations would change how potential host countries, like Qatar, are evaluated by FIFA. Photo by EPA

I asked Ruggie how his recommendations, if implemented whole cloth, might actually look in practice.

"If you roll the clock back [to 2009], as a thought experiment, and Qatar is a bidder, first of all, Qatar would have received documents about what is required from what FIFA calls 'Candidate Countries,'" said Ruggie. "These documents would have included FIFA's own commitment to respect all internationally recognised rights. It would have included a requirement of the [Qatari] government to do everything in its power to ensure that FIFA can live up to its own commitment. It would have required the local organising committee to write similar things into [its] various contracts, and it would have required the local organising committee to set up grievance mechanisms so that an individual or a community that has been wronged has some place to complain, and that could be escalated to the level of FIFA itself if there is no satisfaction on the ground.

"So the whole beginning of the process would have been different. And above all, FIFA would have done an assessment of the human rights situation in Qatar. They would have known about the Kafala system, and they would have said to Qatar, 'Hey, this is your system, but we need a mitigation strategy that makes sure that none of this affects the tournament.'

"And that's the fundamental condition. And if Qatar had come up with appropriate mitigation strategies, and agreed to monitoring for their implementation, Qatar might still have gotten the World Cup. If not, they wouldn't have."

The bidding process for future World Cups should include far more due diligence on FIFA's part, in other words. Whether FIFA can work some of these controls into its existing relationships is another matter. Ruggie is optimistic the situation in Qatar can be improved. He said FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who was elected in February, "gets it – or at least that's what he says." (Whether Blatter "got it" is not a settled matter. "I don't think he had any real sense for what the stuff that I talk about really meant," said Ruggie, "but he knew that it was important.")

Qatar isn't the only place Ruggie is hoping to see change, however. "There's one tournament I care a lot about, and I'm not sure enough is being done about it," he said. "And that's the Under 20 Women's World Cup in Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea is one of the world's worst places for sexual violence against women. Multinational organisations that operate there do not allow their female employees to go unescorted in the middle of the day because of the high risk for carjackings, kidnappings, and sexual attacks – and often the police are involved in these. Just the idea of putting 16 teenage girls teams there sort of blew my mind. The questions now is, 'Are adequate security arrangements being made?' and I haven't been able to get an answer."

Infantino's legacy won't just come down to how he deals with the various messes FIFA has already made, but whether he can prevent the organisation from getting itself into these situations – agreements that put labourers and even athletes at risk – to begin with.

"FIFA is fully committed to respecting human rights," Infantino said in a statement issued prior to the report's publication. "I would like to thank Prof. Ruggie for his work in producing this report, which, together with FIFA's own analysis and ongoing work, will guide the way forward. This is an ongoing process and of course challenges remain, but FIFA is committed to playing its part in ensuring respect for human rights and to being a leader among international sports organisations in this important area."

FIFA is due to select the host for the 2026 men's World Cup in 2017 (or possibly 2020). Does Infantino really get it? We may have to wait until then to find out.

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